For the past few days, I have been at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for the Festival of Faith and Music. Count me as one who begins with reflexive skepticism at any attempt at the "Christian engagement with culture" type of conference, because of the tendency for Christian pastoral workers and theologians to gently smother (read "interpret") "secular" and especially "popular" cultural events and experiences with well-meant blankets of Christian doctrine. Along the way, artists and their productions who frequently have little interest in Christianity get either baptized as secret bearers of grace or criticized as peddlers of idolatry. (This is also a self-criticism, because a good deal of my own work has proceeded in this way.)
But this festival has left me grateful and deeply impressed. I have been attending religion-and-culture conferences in the States and abroad steadily for about fifteen years, and this was probably the best one I have ever attended. The conference planners have found a way to have multiple complementary things happen professionally over three days: excellent live music (this year: Matisyahu, My Brightest Diamond, The Civil Wars, John Foreman of Switchfoot, Vienna Teng, and in the past, Sufjan Stevens, The Hold Steady, Lupe Fiasco, and much more...), quality sessions on pastoral work at the intersection of faith and popular culture, quality sessions on academic work in pop culture and religion, and roundtables on issues of interest to people in the music industry and related topics. Moreover, they have found creative ways of supporting the local Grand Rapids music scene and of engaging the undergraduates at Calvin while bringing in speakers from around the country. And their organization was meticulous. I know of no other conference like it.
I heard John Van Sloten speak about how he crafts sermons occasioned by the popular culture recommendations of people in his church and after he conducts listening sessions with them about what they find in their favorite films and music; I heard Gregory Wolfe give a keynote about Irenaeus of Lyons and "sacramental realism" as a theological warrant for a Christian yes to art high and low; I listened to Daniel White Hodge describe theological questions and contributions of hip-hop; and I took in Luke Powery's keynote about the cultural and theological dynamics of Negro spirituals. (And I gave a talk of my own, on models from theology and cultural studies of relating religion and culture.) There were also sessions on "Southern Soul Music and Racial Reconciliation," "The Art of the Music Review," and "Faith, Hip Hop, and Youth in East Africa" -- and lots more. I heard there were some 500 in attendance, but am not sure of the actual numbers, and the live shows filled the lovely recital hall to the limit. It was a largely Protestant (and overwhelmingly white) crowd. Also, at least for me, a very welcoming one. At the Festival of Faith and Music, which has been going on every other year since 2003, I found lots of people who, like me, are passionate about making spiritual or religious sense of popular music and about making cultural sense of spirituality or religion. Oh, and there was another nice discovery: the local Founder's Porter beer. Exquisite.
There is, to be sure, lots more work to do. In addition to continuing to diversify the participants religiously and ethnically-racially, and to return to my opening comment, I think there is still a crucial growing edge for thinking through the theological relationship between "faith"/"religion"/"spirituality" and "popular culture." That growing edge has to do with not attempting to reduce the meaning of popular culture experiences to Christian terms, even progressive ones. A theology capable of this non-reduction is, in my view, still in its infancy. Such a theology would learn from theologies of interreligious dialogue and of religious pluralism, but would bear a distinct engagement with the question of the constitution of religious and secular experience in "popular" forms. Perhaps the Festival can consider this for the future. Regardless, it was a memorable weekend, and I am grateful to the many hands at Calvin that helped it run so smoothly.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Cross-posted, in 4/4 time, to Rock and Theology.